Chapter 5 Preface
In 1983, Education Secretary Terrel H. Bell published A Nation at Risk, a report concluding that U.S. students’ academic skills were far behind those of students in other industrialized countries. High school seniors were so far behind, the report claimed, that a relatively high number of them—at least 10 percent—were functionally illiterate or lacked basic math skills.
In response to this report, many educators initially supported the push for national educational standards in the early 1990s. As part of a list of educational goals intended to be met by the year 2000, policymakers backed the creation of standards in thirteen subject areas. These standards, which would be compiled by groups of professional educators, were to explicitly state what academic skills and knowledge students should have after completing grades four, eight, and twelve. Under the 1994 Goals 2000 law, states would be given federal money to implement reform measures to get students to meet these national standards.
Support for national educational standards waned, however, after the 1994 release of the proposed history standards, which many historians claimed were unscholarly and “too politically correct.”These standards were rejected by the Senate and revised in 1996. Then in March 1996, the proposed national standards for English were denounced for being unclear. Policymakers and concerned citizens began to question the decision to approve national...
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Conservative Educational Policies Would Benefit Public Schools
I would label myself a political liberal and an educational conservative, or perhaps more accurately, an educational pragmatist. Political liberals really ought to oppose progressive educational ideas because they have led to practical failure and greater social inequity.The only practical way to achieve liberalism’s aim of greater social justice is to pursue conservative educational policies.
ANTONIO GRAMSCI AND PAULO FREIRE
This is not a new idea. In 1932, the Communist intellectual Antonio Gramsci detected the paradoxical consequences of the new “democratic” education that stressed naturalistic approaches over hard work and the transmission of knowledge.Writing from jail (where he had been imprisoned by Mussolini) Gramsci observed that:
Previously pupils at least acquired a certain baggage of concrete facts. Now there will no longer be any baggage to put in order. . . . The most paradoxical aspect of it all is that this new type of school is advocated as being democratic, while in fact it is destined not merely to perpetuate social differences but to crystallize them in Chinese complexities.
Gramsci saw that it was a serious error to discredit learning methods like phonics and memorization of the multiplication table as “outdated” or “conservative.” That was the nub of the standoff between himself and another prominent educational theorist of the political Left, Paulo...
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Progressive Educational Policies Would Benefit Public Schools
We stand poised between alternate ways of imagining the schools of tomorrow. The tough part is that to some extent each of these ways is often espoused by some of the same people, and teachers and citizens alike are led to believe that they can both be carried out simultaneously. Or people try to weave in and out of each, with the result that they end up never decisively setting course.
The two that interest me most are, not surprisingly, often seen as close cousins. This is due to the fact that they are both espoused by people who come out of a similar tradition—progressive and liberal-minded. The kinds of schools they’d both probably like to see are, indeed, in some ways quite similar, with a focus on critical inquiry, curriculum depth, and collaboration and a downplaying of multiple-choice testing, rote memorization, and highly competitive classrooms.
What they disagree about is how to get there, and as a corollary to this, what must be sacrificed for “later” in order to get there “sooner.” Faced with what may be a more imminent danger from the far right, it is tempting to forget these differences. But that would be a mistake because, in fact and despite their often complementary intentions, these two ways stand in chilling contrast to each other.
THE STANDARDS-DRIVEN REFORM MOVEMENT
One way, the position of the supporters of Goals 2000 and, indeed, the entire standards-driven reform movement, rests on...
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Increased Funding Would Improve Public Education
Neuqua Valley High School is the promised land. In this new $62 million school, every classroom has computers with Internet access, telephones and televisions. Students here know the community is offering them the best of learning environments.
Seventy percent of the voters in the suburban school district west of Chicago in which Neuqua Valley High is located approved the $97 million bond issue and property tax increase needed to build new schools in the area. DuSable High in downtown Chicago doesn’t compare.
Neuqua Valley, for instance, boasts an Olympic-sized “fast pool” deep enough for speed training. On a visit to 55-year-old DuSable, we found the pool closed because the roof over it had collapsed.
Parents of students at DuSable care deeply about education, but with 98 percent of them living near or below poverty level, there is a limit to what they can afford.
COOK COUNTY ALTERNATIVE SCHOOL
At Cook County Alternative School, conditions are even more primitive. The school, run by the public school system but located in the Cook County Jail, offers high school–level courses to its inmates. Ninety-six percent of its students are African American or Hispanic.
In math and reading tests, 11th graders at this school scored at levels set for seventh graders. Ironically, they scored a little better than the average for all Chicago public schools. When I asked them why, they said, “Focus....
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Increased Funding Does Not Improve Public Education
President Bill Clinton is traipsing up and down the land, calling for more money for education. This time, it’s money to hire 100,000 additional teachers in order to reduce class size and hopefully improve public education.
A just-released report by the American Legislative Exchange Council, “Report Card on American Education,” suggests that taxpayers, parents and students are about to be had again.
THE “MORE-MONEY” SHAM
Let’s examine the education establishment’s more-money, bettereducation sham. New Jersey ranks No. 1 in the nation in terms of expenditures per student ($10,900).Washington, D.C., is a close second at $10,300. If educationists are right, New Jersey and Washington should have the highest level of student achievement in the land.
Think again. New Jersey ranks 29th in student achievement. As for Washington, the only thing preventing it from being dead last in student achievement is Mississippi.
Minnesota ranks first in the nation in terms of student achievement, and Iowa ranks second. If we accepted the more-moneybetter education sham, we’d think Minnesota and Iowa are really up there in per-student expenditures. Think again. Minnesota ranks 27th in expenditure per student ($6,300), and Iowa ranks a lowly 30th ($6,000). There is no relation between expenditures and student performance.
CLASS SIZE AND TEACHER SALARIES
You say: “Williams, you’re...
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The linchpin of our efforts to strengthen public education has been to raise standards and expectations for all students. As a result of state and local efforts, and with the support of Goals 2000 and other Federal education programs, students in every state in the country are beginning to benefit from higher academic standards and a more challenging curriculum.
If our efforts to promote higher standards are to lead to increased student achievement, the standards must count. Students must be required to meet them, and schools must provide each student with adequate preparation.
At present, too often standards don’t count. Students are passed from grade to grade often regardless of whether they have mastered required material and are academically prepared to do the work at the next level. It’s called “social promotion.” For many students, the ultimate consequence is that they fall further and further behind, and leave school ill equipped for college and without the skills needed for employment. This is unacceptable for students, teachers, employers, and taxpayers.
That is why I have repeatedly challenged states and school districts to end social promotions—to require students to meet rigorous academic standards at key transition points in their schooling career, and to end the practice of promoting students without regard to how much they have learned. As every parent knows, students must...
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Flunking Students Does Not Improve Academic Achievement
President Bill Clinton’s latest education proposals have been getting him enthusiastic applause. But on one point, at least, we should be wary.
In his 1999 State of the Union address, Mr. Clinton objected strongly to social promotion—passing students to the next grade level even when they haven’t learned very much—and he lauded the “retention” program now being used in Chicago as proof that flunking students improves achievement.
RETENTION IS INEFFECTIVE
One problem with the President’s pitch is that no comprehensive evaluation has been conducted of the Chicago program. More broadly, the danger is that advocates of retention will hear only part of the President’s words—they will ignore his warning that simply holding students back a grade isn’t enough. This would be unfortunate, because research has clearly shown that flunking students to improve their academic performance is ineffective and even harmful.
In fact, school districts in many parts of the country already flunk huge numbers of students. The Chicago system held back about 12,000 elementary students in grades three, six and eight in 1997 and 1998. And New York City is considering going back to a more active use of retention.
All of those involved should learn from the past. In the early 1980’s New York City went through one off its periodic cycles of flunking students who weren’t keeping up. In a study for the Mayor’s...
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